The first in a series of stories calling into question the supposed joys of summer.
The annual summer solstice — when the northern pole on our ever-twirling planet achieves its maximum tilt toward the mighty sun — marks the arrival of the year’s longest day and the year’s shortest night. It’s an enchanted moment, surrounded by many other nearly-as-long days and nearly-as-short nights, a miraculous excess of bright sunlit hours that conspire to push darkness into retreat.
And to celebrate this bounty? The birds warble at 5 a.m., your neighbor mows his lawn at 9 p.m., and your kids beg to stay up way too late. Rude brightness wakes you up at a God-awful hour and, later, tricks you into remaining at your office well past the point when you should be asking to see the menu.
Wow, it’s already 7 p.m. — doesn’t feel like it! Let me fire off another email.
Most people welcome the long days that come with summer, which officially began in the Northern Hemisphere at 11:54 a.m. on Friday. And then there are the haters, those who loathe the unending light that doesn’t give way to night until it’s almost time for bed.
“I find it terribly depressing,” Barbara Stein said. She likes eating dinner by candlelight. Dark city nights invigorate her. “When I’d leave my office in the wintertime, it felt like a whole new experience was starting,” the 68-year-old D.C. resident said. “Whereas in the summer, it’s like, blah, blah, blah.” The thought of enduring another summer contributed to her decision to retire in 2008.
Steven Myket thinks everyone else has it backward: Extra hours of daylight make him feel as though he actually has less time for leisure.
It’s complicated. Stay with him here.
“I’ve done some deep self-analysis, and I’m pretty sure this all stems from when I was a kid and didn’t want the next day to start because I didn’t want to go to school,” the 26-year-old from Maryland said. And in the winter, at least, when the sun sets, “that doesn’t automatically mean bedtime.”
Our culture portrays summer as endless days pregnant with possibility. Donna Alexander recalls a recent meeting at the ad agency in California where she works when a single guy proclaimed, “There isn’t anybody who doesn’t love summer!”
“I was like, hold the phone,” the mother of four recalled. “There was a time when I was literally in tears. They would announce the last day of school and I would take myself somewhere private, because I was like, ‘How am I going to get through another summer?’ ”
Alexander, now 57, had to scramble each year to keep her kids occupied on a budget during those school-free days. Thirsty and hot from the California sun, they were only interested in consuming liquids and watery fruit during daylight, only to turn ravenous for solid food as soon as the sun set late.
Then there’s the matter of sleep. While long-day lovers fill up their time with tasks, some of us just want to go to bed, or, better yet, remain there until a reasonable morning hour. The sun has no respect for such plans.
“The longer the days, the more I have my neighbors barbecuing or chatting it up when I’m trying to get my kids to go to bed,” said Clint Edwards, whose wife calls him “the Summer Scrooge.”
The couple’s three children mount varying defenses against their regularly scheduled sleep during Oregon’s long summer days. Edwards often thinks of the “Simpsons” episode in which Bart and Lisa stay the night at Ned Flanders’s. “But it’s only 7 o’clock! The sun is still out,” Lisa says, opening the bedroom curtain to reveal a herd of children playing outside.
Bend the rules at your own peril. Many kids still wake up early no matter how late they go to bed. If his 5-year-old doesn’t get enough sleep, “the world is burning” the next day, Edwards said. His 12-year-old gets terrible headaches. And then there’s the diminished kid-free time for him and his wife.
“I just want that one hour before I go to bed where they’re not clawing at me or barging in to talk to me while I’m in the restroom,” Edwards said. “If the sun’s up longer, I only get 30 or 45 minutes. I hate that fact.”
So we just need to be more strict about bedtimes? It’s not that simple, said Malia Jacobson, a health journalist who writes about sleep. Darkness cues production of melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. “More sunlight later at night delays this natural cycle, pushing adults and kids to stay up later. But because young children thrive with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, summer’s late sunsets can be hard on family life,” she said.
How hard? “Think whining, exhausted, hot kids who can’t sleep at night and are too tired to enjoy their summer activities the next day.” She speaks from personal experiences; the mother of three lives in Washington state, where the sun can rise at 4:30 a.m. and set at 10 p.m.
Summer’s daylight also sends wildlife into a frenzy. Joan Anzelmo, 64, who lives in Wyoming, has to contend with birds, elk, wolves and more when all she wants to do is sleep: “Just like humans, a lot of them are much more active.” (She would also like to raise some objections to the fact that daylight saving time starts in March.)
Haters have their coping strategies. Jacobson advises blackout curtains in kids’ rooms and powering down electronics an hour before bedtime. Stein draws the blinds and watches Scandinavian films set in the cold and dark. She also recommends the 2002 movie “Insomnia,” in which Al Pacino plays a detective who investigates a murder in the Alaskan summer, where the days can last nearly 20 hours, and “the constant light just starts making him nuts and crazy, and he can’t sleep,” Stein said. “It sort of captures how oppressive daylight can be.”
A bit extreme of a scenario, sure. But generally, sleep deprivation has a profound effect on mood — messed-up circadian rhythm, thrown-off biological clocks, hormone secretion patterns out of whack, increased pain sensitivity.
“All of those can feed into depression, not to mention the fact that if people aren’t getting enough sleep, they simply feel tired and feel like they’re running out of gas,” said Andrew Leuchter, a psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences professor at UCLA.
Summer even triggers seasonal affective disorder in a very small number of people, although unlike the better-known wintertime SAD, the biological reasons are unclear, and statistics are hard to come by. Leuchter said summer mood dips could have complex triggers beyond daylight hours, from the sweltering weather to a “diminished structure” in one’s life.
Meanwhile, our culture is telling us that we should be happy in the summer, “and if we’re out of step with that, then that causes us greater distress,” he said. “Many people have a sense that if they say ‘I always get down in the summer,’ that someone else is going to say ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”
If you do love the long days filled with hours and hours of light, the start of summer should spark a more existential crisis. We’ve hit our peak. Friday gave us the most daylight we’ll have all year, and how good was that day, really? Did any of us achieve a career goal? Did we finally finish that to-do list? Did we look up to the sky and mutter a silent prayer of gratitude? Experience internal peace? Weed the garden?
The long summer days tell us this is the best it’ll ever be. Yet even these, the brightest of days, can’t live up to their promise of magic.